Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
I should like to express my sincere appreciation to Dr. Eurfyl Richards for his invaluable help with the Welsh translations in this book.
Yet again, methinks,
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb,
Is coming towards me; and my inward soul
With nothing trembles: at something it grieves
More than with parting from my lord the king.
, ACT II, SC. II
The seabird was flying east, warned inland by the storm in his cool, hasty blood. From the mouth of the Seine he had come, over the plain of Normandy and the spires of Elbeuf and Evreux. He had dipped in salute to the convent tower at Poissy; he had wheeled briefly southwards toward the distant glitter of Chartres. Now his flight brought him to Paris, over the pepper-pot turrets of the inner and outer walls and down to the Cité for a brief landing at La Grève, where the fishermen were berthed from a trip between Mantes and Corbeil, and on the little strand he filched a beakful of the catch. Feathers luminous in the watery sun, he rose again to fly on inland over the Île Notre Dame and the Île aux Vaches, dropping lower over the Porte au Blé. Below he saw a cone-shaped turret and an alcove with a wide stone sill, a temporary resting place. He swept down in one final arc and landed at an east window of the Hôtel de St Paul. Through the glass the tearful eyes of a princess regarded him.
She had been weeping for most of the day, but at four years old was young enough to be distracted by the bird’s appearance. Katherine, youngest daughter of the House of Valois, peered closely at the blanched feathers, the small topaz eye. She edged along the stone window-seat and saw him through coloured panes in a pattern of lozenges and scrolls. He was a blue bird, a green-red bird and, where a pane was broken, white again, under a breeze that ruffled his breast and dried a tear on her cheek. She cried because she was hungry. Yesterday had been a sickening void making her dream of food—hot soup, honey pears, the costly white bonbons eaten somewhere long ago—an unforgettable sweetness linked with a name, a face, a perfumed presence long unfelt. She was cold too; she tucked her dirty bare feet beneath her and the breeze nipped her through her ragged dress. She wondered whether it would be possible to catch and tame the big bird, put a jewelled bonnet on its head, like the bird that Belle had carried when they were last together. Isabelle. Belle. Hers was the name of all sweetness. ‘God keep you, little sister,’ she had said. To Katherine, the six months of their separation was a lifetime, infected with constant hunger and fear. Because fear lodged in this palace, in the dark place at the bottom of the stairs where the stone monster leaned from his niche; every crevice of the unswept rooms and galleries; in the little towers and the places beneath the fortress. And even if one were allowed outside, there was the ambience of past terrors, mysterious ones.
Looking east she could see the Bastille, its gate set in the Enceinte Philip-Augustus, the outer wall erected two hundred years earlier to strengthen Paris. Below it the carved and pinnacled Porte St Antoine looked almost insignificant, not to be compared with the town’s royal gateway with its reminder of St Denis’s martyrdom. Once, passing from Troyes into Paris, she had looked up at the headless saint between his escort of Bishops. Denis had walked from the place of his execution on the hill of Montmartre carrying his severed head in his hands, all the way to Catulliacum. Belle had told her: ‘Little sister, wherever he trod, a flower sprang up!’
Near the Bastille, beyond the spires of the Temple, was the scaffold of Montfaucon, decked daily with the forms of felons hanging in the wind. Below those gallows Philip-Augustus had watched his heretics burn in the red flame, long before Katherine’s birth. This, she had been told, was all part of life, as she opened the proffered breviary illuminated by representations of the fire, the knife, the rope. These images had faded however, leaving wariness. The real terror was here, in the palace, in the next turret, an unspeakable pit of despair.
The seabird stood still outside the window, with its implacable sideways stare. Katherine knelt upright, a tall child with great dark eyes and the long strong nose of Valois. Beneath a dingy kerchief her fine dark hair was clotted with filth. The bird turned to launch itself in flight. She whispered: ‘Don’t go …’ while the moment’s pleasure equated with lost joy and again she remembered Belle. Even in the far misty days when Belle had wept constantly there had been a place for Katherine on Belle’s lap. She gazed at the bird fervently, while behind her shadows fanned into the room and the sun’s last warmth departed.
Through the early autumn sky she heard the Célestins bell across the square, calling the nuns to Vespers. All over Paris people would be sitting down to table; the bourgeoisie of La Ville to the north, the nobles and merchants of La Cité within the inner wall, the students of L’Université in the south. Beyond the outer
the harvesters would be coming back from the vineyards, already gnawing a wheel of cheese or a crust. Katherine clasped her empty belly. Life had not always been like this. She had dim recollections of a table gleaming with silver, of hot food, of Belle’s brocade sleeve under her forehead. And a jongleur singing, laughing because she yawned. That had not been in this place, perhaps not even in Paris. Her father had been there, his hands smelling of lemon flowers and jasmine. Her sisters Marie, Michelle, Joanna, and her brothers Louis, Charles and Jean had been there too. The feast of St Denis. And her mother … here fear closed up her mind.
The door behind her opened with a groan of damp and neglect. A figure came listlessly in and joined her at the window. This princess was six years old, as pinched and pale as her sister. She was naked under a worn woollen gown. Katherine pointed, smiling eagerly, to the window.
‘Look at the big bird, Michelle!’
When Katherine smiled all her defects vanished. Her dark eyes gleamed like washed fruit; two dimples appeared as if loving fingers squeezed her chin, and the prominent nose diminished. She was beautiful.
‘I see nothing,’ said Michelle.
The sill was empty. There were only grey pinnacled towers and the gibbet etched against the dusky sky. In the shadows of the room something swift moved and vanished.
‘Yes. Louis caught one this morning. He’s going to teach it tricks.’
They sat silently together then, the familiars of fear and penury, two of the five female heirs of the House of Valois, that great dynasty stretching beyond Charles the Count, son of Saint Louis, through Philip the Sixth, down from John the Good to Charles the Fifth, who had secured Paris by building an inner wall about the city. Charles, brother to three powerful Dukes; Louis of Anjou, John of Berry, Philip of Burgundy. The children sat shivering, close, while lice crept in their hair and under their garments; the daughters of Charles the Sixth, King of France. Charles
! Dirty, cold and hungry, these were the offspring of a lunatic’s marriage with Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, who last night had lain at the Louvre Palace and who now rode through Paris towards them, full of her customary spleen and mischief. And Michelle had her own premonitory thoughts.
‘There was a strange man in the kitchen, and a horse in the yard. The man was kissing Jeanette. She was pleased. She gave me an apple. Here’s your half.’ She produced a brown object from her pocket. ‘I’m sorry, Kéti. It’s not very nice.’
Queen Isabeau had sent this amorous courier on beforehand to ensure that there was some wine in St Paul; for life for her without wine was unthinkable. It was three months since she had ridden off on one of her periodic scheming forays.